Revelation as a Circular Letter

An Epistle

RB’s discussion of Revelation as a circular epistle has some important and potentially mind-blowing implications. The writing is dense; much of what RB says here can’t be condensed. So I quote him extensively in this post. It is a lengthy post, but I am passionate about this and don’t know how to do otherwise. Interested parties are encouraged to get this book!

Revelation as an Epistle

Many misreadings of Revelation occur because it is overlooked that this whole work is an epistle, a letter written to then existing churches, and not to some far-off end-time/last-day generation.

While most directly concerning the seven churches, Revelation has interest to a broader audience. 1 Corinthians is very targeted to one church; but we all benefit from that epistle [cf. Col 4:16].

Meet the Seven Churches

John uses a unique strategy in Revelation. The body of his message is for all the churches. But he has very different, very specific introductions for each church. These are the famed ‘seven letters’ to the churches.

Seven Churches OrderThe churches are named in the order a messenger delivering this letter to them from Patmos would most naturally follow.

The churches faced very different problems, and they faced some common problems very differently. Each ‘letter’ is an ‘introduction’ to the whole book, in which Jesus addresses that specific church.

God Sanctions Other ‘Interpretations?’

The Revelation as a whole is a circular letter written to seven churches. But John intended for it to be read from seven different perspectives. [This seems to be to be HUGELY liberating to fundamentalists who are bound so very slavishly to the ‘one’ reading allowed every passage!].

Churches in turn are promised future salvation ‘to him who overcomes!’ This is the call to eschatological [future] battle. But what is victory? What does it mean conquer? The letters don’t explain that; but that is explained in the central chapters of this epistle. Likewise, our eschatological destiny is described at the end of the epistle.

John’s World, Ours, or Both…

John lived under Rome’s worldwide tyranny. He wanted the churches to see how that tyranny related to the issues they faced. He wanted them to see how their struggle on the issues fit in God’s great battle against tyranny, and how it served God’s purpose to establish his kingdom.

RB observes that not all Christians were poor and oppressed by Rome’s tyrannical system. Many were affluent and compromised with it. For them, the judgments described in Revelation came not for consolation but as stern warnings of the danger they incurred. It was not only pagans, but many of John’s hearers/readers were tempted to or actually did worship the beast [as those who listened to Jezebel at Thyatira].

Comfort or warning, the application of Revelation turned on the group to which hearers belonged, and their relationship with Rome’s tyranny. Asia Minor had more churches than seven. But the wealth of perspectives John provided allows all the churches to find analogies in his representative sampling of churches.


Thus read, Revelation becomes a devastating critique of much Christian profession. They are not alone, but even some very ‘fundamentalist’ sects uncritically endorse US militarism, war, foreign interventionism, plus domestic repression [law-and-order] and poverty [austerity, wage cuts, medical/benefits cuts, interest rates favoring the wealthy, etc.].

The Revelation identifies that as spiritual alignment with and worship of the powers of Death. We have the means to address the enormous social, economic and political crises besetting nation and world. But we surrender this by pushing the theology of the Revelation into the future. And it is done PRECISELY to allow us to profess Christ AND sell out to the world.

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues’ [Re 18:3-4].

Sanhedrin Envy

Envy -- it isn't just for the first century anymore.
President Bush, accompanied by Chabad Rabbis, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 15, 2008 (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert).

Competing Visions

Political narratives and Jesus’ life run in opposite directions. Political narratives peddle language of revival — revival in economic, military, social and national power. Jesus’ practice was about relinquishing power, position and wealth. He spoke in terms of humility, patience, charity, grace and more. The first is about earthly greatness and glory. The other is about finding glory in weakness, humiliation and enduring suffering.

These two world could not be more different. Earthly political aspirations and God’s kingdom run in opposite directions. And no where is this more true or more evident in Jesus’ crucifixion. Unless I’m misreading many things, the United States is very ready to sacrifice other nations. Few of our cultural icons are committed to the idea of self-sacrifice.

Remaking God in our Image

That said, one might wonder how the ‘Christian nation’ premise stuck. It must be one of the great cons of modern history. And that point is not lost on Tony Campolo. Writing for Red Letter Christians, he says:

‘The god for many Christians may not be the god revealed in Jesus Christ.

Campolo’s piece doesn’t mention idolatry, but the premise is there. He writes:

Emile Durkheim, one of the key figures among sociologists, in his book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pointed out that every society had a tendency to create images of God that incarnate their own collective traits and values. America is no exception –

He continues saying:

‘…many Americans worship a socially created deity who embodies wealth, power and prestige.’

Sanhedrin Envy

The Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day had little clout. Judea was under Roman occupation. Council members tended routine affairs. Generally they could use their position to fatten themselves. But if weighty issues arose as was the case with a political criminal named Jesus, they had to negotiate with Rome’s representative. And they hated it.

On one hand they relied on their cooperation with Rome to retain their position in their society. But on the other, they loathed the reminder that they were Caesar’s little toadies. Caught between desire for the position they had, but craving so much more — Sanhedrin Envy.

Except it isn’t limited to the Sanhedrin or that place. And it certainly isn’t limited to the faith they had. James Dobson alone establishes that. And he is far from alone. Envy is a powerful, corrupting motivation.

Contemporary Idolatry

Lead figures of many religious persuasions wealth, power and prestige. And strange alliances [forbidden to God’s ancient people] are formed to get it. Along the way, God tends to get caricatured to facilitate the process. It’s still old-fashioned religion. And it is still idolatrous. And just so as they don’t complain, IFBs are hardly the only ones to do it.

We come by idols naturally. But by God’s grace, we may perhaps admit this and turn from them.